Why is the CIO/CTO still an optional seat on the Board?

Technology is always on, which means we are always available. Even more so since COVID. As a result, there’s often an unwritten expectation that the technology function, and those who lead it, will be available too.

Of course, it’s our job to ensure that the IT and technology of a business is working right. But at the same time, it means we’re perceived merely as a service function, rather than having value in our own right. The consequence is that CIOs and CTOs don’t get an automatic seat at the top table.

Weirdly, this is at odds with other service functions, such as HR and Finance, who are frequently on the Board. IT is the relative newbie, but today it fundamentally underpins every strategy and decision. So why is the CIO/CTO still an optional seat on the board?

If it’s not about the function’s maturity, I think it comes down to how we interact with our colleagues.

Staff use technology to get their job done; it’s a tool. And like all tools, they ‘just want it to work’. Thus, when they do engage with IT, it’s usually because something has gone wrong. For them it’s irrelevant to understand what actually underpins their ability to do their work. Thus success for a technology function is often attributed to having as few incidents as possible and very high up-times; the phone should never ring.

This is where we differ from other service functions. People want to interact with HR and HR wants that interaction—recruitment, benefits, vacations, performance appraisals, etc. People have to interact with Finance and Finance wants that interaction as well—budgets, capital expenditure approval, POs, paying suppliers, and so on.

IT, however, can easily be lumped in with facilities management: we both fix stuff. And our customer engagement only compounds this when they call. We issue a ticket reference, an engineer is scheduled, and their call is resolved. That sounds a lot like replacing a light bulb or fixing a leaky pipe.

And then we reinforce that impression by referring to the technology as ‘the plumbing’, ourselves as ‘engineers’, the company’s employees as ‘users’, and that we ‘keep the lights on’.

How can we expect to have a voice on the Board when we just fix stuff that shouldn’t be broken in the first place?

Perhaps I’m exaggerating. But not much. Of course, we should be proud of how well we manage and maintain our company’s tech, but it’s really not the right way to create engagement, and thus a seat at the executive table.

So how do we change that perception?

One way begins with us: we should stop looking at the business as a customer. They’re not. They’re our colleagues. We need to stop calling them customers or users, because it drives a wedge between us and the rest of the business.

Second, we need to communicate how we can help; indeed we have more opportunity to make a difference to productivity, profits, and revenue than any other service department. We should be making that very clear. We should let people know that without exception, every department is more likely to achieve their business goals if they engage with IT, because we can enable their strategic direction with technology.

If we structure the technology function in a way that creates and develops relationships at all levels with other departments, and they see a difference in their day-to-day productivity and their long-term goals, it won’t be us demanding a seat on the board, it’ll be everyone else asking why on earth we’re not there. But we can’t metaphorically set up a stall and hope they’ll come and buy from us. We need to build relationships that mean something, certainly more than just improved access to services. We need to bring real meaning to departmental engagement with technology.

✔️For a start, we could ask ourselves two questions: ‘Why would this department want to come and talk to us?’ and ‘What should they want to talk to us about?’.

✔️Then we take those ideas to the department head for a chat. Even if we were totally wrong, it gets the conversation off on the right foot, and nobody would mention fixing stuff.

✔️If we’re always available, and we’re only fixing stuff, it shouldn’t be surprising we’re not on the Board. It’s up to us to change the narrative and show how much value we bring to a business. And if we don’t, we also shouldn’t be surprised if we’re once more on the sharp end of outsourcing!

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